Alex Morgan says it feels like a homecoming every time she returns to StubHub Center to play for the United States women’s national team.
“I have a lot of family there. I grew up there,” said Morgan, who attended Diamond Bar High and played youth soccer in Cypress. “I usually have over 100 coming to any game that I play there.”
This time, the homecoming is truly about coming home. Last winter, Morgan’s husband, Servando Carrasco, moved to Manhattan Beach after being traded from Orlando City to the Galaxy. This week, as the women’s national team prepares for a friendly against Chile on Friday at StubHub, marks the most time the couple has spent together in eight months.
“I’m definitely looking forward to spending a lot of time in L.A.,” said Morgan, who plays for the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League.
“Just emotionally it takes a toll on you being away from each other. Whenever me and Servando are apart for a long period of time, like we are this year, you’re either going to have your marriage suffer or your job suffer. And our marriage is very strong.”
Carrasco agreed, although he playfully questioned the real reason his wife was excited to be back.
“She’s probably going to be more excited to see the dog,” he said of Blue, the couple’s 2 1/2-year-old Mastiff-pit mix. “But that’s all right.”
Friday’s game, and a rematch next week in San Jose, are the U.S. team’s final warmups for World Cup qualifying, which begins next month in North Carolina. Morgan, with a team-leading 17 goals in her last 19 matches, a streak in which the national team is unbeaten, has become the center of a potent U.S. offense that is averaging three goals a game over the last 13 months.
That production coincides with a period in which Morgan has been free of the ankle and hamstring injuries that plagued her since 2012, when she scored a career-high 28 goals.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis said Morgan’s health is only part of the reason for her recent surge.
“She's also seeing development in her game — in her movement, in her timing, in her technique to pressure, in her willingness to run in behind, in her willingness to defend,” Ellis said. “There's just been a commitment from Alex. And I think at this point in someone's career, fantastic, right?
“She's still hungry to improve. Obviously, you have to be healthy to be on the field, but I think that would be understating what she's actually done in terms of just committing to her game and working to get better.”
Morgan, 29, is poised to step out from beneath Carli Lloyd’s shadow to become the leader of the U.S. team, taking a baton passed from Mia Hamm to Abby Wambach and finally to Lloyd, 36, who plans to retire following the 2020 Olympics.
“In a lot of ways, being the No. 9 in the formation we play, I’m looked at to score goals, to lead the team, to be that presence,” Morgan said. “We have a lot of leaders on this team. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily feel … like I’m the only one leading this team. But I do feel like I have a larger presence with this team than I have ever had before.”
Hamm, Wambach and Lloyd each won world player of the year honors after leading the U.S. to World Cup or Olympic titles. Morgan could get her chance next summer provided the U.S. finishes in the top three in next month’s CONCACAF championships, the eight-team tournament that serves as the region’s World Cup qualifier.
The U.S. has never missed a women’s World Cup.
“We've got to make sure we're performing and playing well to make sure we qualify,” said Ellis, who called 23 players into this week’s training camp in Carson. “The hope is over the next 11 months we get better and better and better.”
That’s Morgan’s long-term goal as well. Short term, she plans to spend part of the next 11 days getting to know her husband and dog again.
“On a daily basis we support each other so much. It’s really difficult if you’re not playing in the same city,” said Morgan, who spent two seasons with her husband in Orlando before he signed with the Galaxy in January. “He’s my rock and my support system. I look to him to lift me up, to give me constructive criticism.
“So it’s just hard when it has to be on the phone.”
Carrasco, who met Morgan when both played in college at California, said the advantages of being married to another soccer player outweigh the difficulties of a long-distance relationship.
“It comes with the territory. We kind of signed up for this,” said Carrasco, 30.